Other People’s Problems

Reading

Memoir is not my favorite genre, but lately I’ve read a couple of interesting ones—about a misbegotten woman and an idolized father—and two nonfiction stories about the trials of war, one with a happy ending, one not.

****Celibacy: A Love Story
By Mimi Bull – The book’s subtitle as the punchline, “Memoir of a Catholic Priest’s Daughter.” As a child in a world of secrets, she was adopted by an older woman and her twenty-something daughter. It doesn’t surprise that her “sister” turns out to be her mother. Only after the mother dies does Mimi learn who her father was. Despite the lack of suspense, the book is fascinating. The adult Mimi and her husband lived in Istanbul, in Sedona, in Vienna. A unique story, charmingly told.

**The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
By Lucette Lagnado – I heard about this book while I was in Egypt, a country that once had a significant Jewish population, until Egyptian President Nasser forced them to leave. To the child Lucette, Cairo and her family’s apartment were paradise, and her father was king. When they are exiled, a Jewish aid agency finds them a disreputable lodging in Paris and an unsatisfactory apartment in New York. Lucette’s father’s business is murky; in New York, he sells fake Italian neckties. The family hates its new life. Lucette blindly adored her father, but I cannot tell you why.

****Escape from Paris
By Stephen Harding – This is the true story of a group of American airmen shot down over France and the complicated escape routes the French set up for them. Danger is on all sides. One of the safe houses is right under the nose of the Nazis, in the apartment of the caretaker of the Hôtel des Invalides, site of Napoleon’s tomb. Very exciting!

***The 21
By Martin Mosebach – As the cover proclaims, this is “a journey into the land of Coptic martyrs.” On February 15, 2015, twenty-one young Egyptian men, ISIS captives, were marched onto a beach in Libya and beheaded. The video recording of that event went around the world. What was most striking was the dignity and faith they maintained until the end. The author sets out trying to learn about them, their home villages, and the faith that supported them. A bit philosophical for me, but I read it to pay my respects.

Conscience

George Street Theatre, Conscience

On stage at George Street Playhouse is the world premiere of Tony award-winning playwright Joe DiPietro’s play Conscience—a timely examination of the political risks and imperative for elected leaders to stand up to a demagogic bully. The production, expertly directed by George Street’s artistic director David Saint, opened March 6 and runs through March 29.

DiPietro focuses his historical drama tightly on four people: Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith (played by Tony-winner Harriet Harris) and her aide William Lewis, Jr. (Mark Junek), on one side, and Senate Republican Joseph McCarthy (Lee Sellars) and his researcher—and later wife—Jean Kerr (Cathryn Wake), on the other.

As the drama begins, Smith—the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate—is a political whirlwind. McCarthy, elected in 1946, clearly doesn’t take his Senatorial duties nearly as seriously as he does his flask. Their two aides effectively and efficiently stake out the opposing political positions. You dread the vicious confrontation to come, when she remarks on McCarthy’s two essential qualities: “the ability to hate and the skill to communicate it as virtue.”

McCarthy’s virulent anti-Communism crusade begins when, before a group of Republican women in Wheeling, West Virginia, he waves a piece of paper that he claims contains the names of 205 Communists who work in the U.S. State Department. Fueled by alcohol and drunk on power, he rides high for the next few years, making wild accusations about Communists in government that stoke public fear.

By 1950, the appalled Smith is the only Senator brave enough to take him on. She believes her colleagues will support the Declaration of Conscience she delivers on the Senate floor. But only six senators sign on, and later disavow it. The declaration makes McCarthy her implacable enemy, and Smith and Lewis, a homosexual, become a target of his smear tactics.

The demagoguery, defamation, and mudslinging continue, until McCarthy takes on the U.S. Army, a quest that ends with the famous statement: “Have you lost all sense of decency?” It’s a comeuppance the audience savors after so much one-sided verbal violence.

Despite the unsettling resonance with the current political moment, DiPietro avoids cheap political shots, focusing instead on the intense interpersonal dynamics. Smith is a powerful, complex character—a woman with a sense of humor—in DiPietro and Harris’s hands, and Sellars’s McCarthy slowly unravels before your eyes. Junek movingly confesses his homosexuality, and Wake adds an effective touch of sanctimony to Ms Kerr/Mrs. McCarthy.

George Street Playhouse has great skill in bringing such focused biographical works to life, having previously excelled with DiPietro’s The Second Mrs. Wilson and Joanna Glass’s Trying (about aging US Attorney General Francis Biddle). Even though this important play is about politics and therefore, mostly about talking, David Saint’s lively direction never lets its momentum slow. It is mesmerizing.

Conscience is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Girl from the North Country

This Broadway production at the Belasco Theatre is a real treat for anyone at all a Bob Dylan fan. Written and directed by Conor McPherson, its slim but heartfelt story showcases more than 20 of Dylan’s songs, accompanying them with a small group of background musicians who let the words shine through. Though the eponymous tune is on the playlist, I somehow missed it, so here’s the Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash version for your listening enjoyment.

The songs from the 60s and early 70s hold up well, rather evenly balanced with more recent work. This isn’t a “best of” concert, so there were some less familiar songs too. A few get a gospel treatment, which blurred the words for my ears (in the second row), and of course, it’s Dylan’s lyrics that are so powerful. He is a Nobel Prize-winner after all!

The story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, in winter 1934, “where the wind hits heavy on the border line.” There, the proprietor and residents of a down-at-heels boarding house, who seem to have been pulled straight from Dylan’s lyrics, face numerous and varied difficulties. Mostly poverty. The establishment is run by a hard-pressed Gene Laine (played by Jay O. Sanders). His wife Elizabeth (Mare Winningham) is in the early stages of dementia. While she may be a bit off and filter-free, she sees what’s going on better than almost anyone, and Winningham plays her beautifully. Their son Nick (Colton Ryan) is frittering away his youth and, when his girlfriend leaves him, his rendition of “I Want You” with his shyly pleading smile, is a heart-breaker.

Their unmarried daughter Marianne (Kimber Elayne Sprawl), an African American foundling the Laines raised, is pregnant, and wrongly accused prison escapee and former boxer Joe Scott (Austin Scott) wants to marry her. This plotline provides the perfect opportunity to sing a bit of “Hurricane.” (You may have seen Scott as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton on Broadway.)

There are more guests with heavy burdens, and ending with “Forever Young” provides an ironically upbeat note. All the acting is strong from the 13-member cast. The music is woven into the fabric of their daily lives, and I liked the simple set with photographic backdrops, especially a bleak Lake Superior in winter.

Photo: Pixabay

Midwives

Photo: © T Charles Erickson

George Street Playhouse’s world-premiere stage adaptation of Midwives, directed by the theater’s Artistic Director, David Saint, opened January 24 and runs through February 16. Chris Bohjalian’s 1997 suspense novel has sold more than two million copies, and at least two previous attempts have been made to take it from page to stage. For George Street’s version, Bohjalian himself takes on the writing task. That he’s more a novelist than a playwright may account for some of my difficulties with this production.

Sibyl Danforth (played by Ellen McLaughlin), a well-respected Vermont midwife, is attending the labor of Charlotte Bedford (Monique Robinson). On hand are Charlotte’s husband Asa (Ryan George) and Sibyl’s new assistant, Anne Austin (Grace Experience). It’s the middle of the night and an ice storm rages outside and the labor is not going well. Finally, the situation deteriorates to the point that she agrees Charlotte should go to the hospital.

Unfortunately, the storm has knocked out the phone lines and the roads around the Bedfords’ remote farmhouse are impassable. When Charlotte falls unconscious, Sibyl believes she’s had a stroke. She cannot detect blood pressure or pulse. CPR proves fruitless. Faced with a dead mother, Sibyl’s attention turns to saving the infant, using a kitchen knife to cut Charlotte open.

In Act Two, Sibyl is on trial for manslaughter. Anne maintains Charlotte was alive when Sibyl made the incision, and the state’s attorney (Armand Schultz) argues that Sibyl’s intervention killed her. Sibyl’s lawyer (Lee Sellars) says, on the contrary, she saved a life.

Throughout, you have the perspective of Sybil’s daughter, 14-year-old Connie (Molly Carden). The events around Charlotte’s death and her mother’s trial are vivid in Connie’s mind almost a decade later, when she is a budding OB-GYN. While skipping around in time is rather easily handled in a novel, in a play it makes for some awkward scenelets. Especially puzzling were interactions between medical student Connie and Anne.

In ancient times, a sibyl was considered a witch, and, regrettably, the pursuit of Sibyl Danforth becomes a witch-hunt, which oversimplifies many issues. The play would have had a much-needed infusion of drama had it retained the novel’s final surprise as a surprise.

Bohjalian made another important departure from the book when he made Charlotte and Asa Bedford African American. A black preacher and his wife newly arrived in northern Vermont to serve a congregation of Q-tips (Charlotte’s description) shifts the social dynamic and raises unnecessary (and unanswered) questions.

The actors do a good job with the somewhat limited emotional range provided by the script. McLaughlin is stoic, Experience is a master of “I told you so,” and George is the most sympathetic when he declares he doesn’t want Sibyl punished. This is a story that should have been dripping with drama; I don’t understand why it wasn’t.

Midwives is on view at George Street’s beautiful new home at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Avenue. For tickets, call 732-246-7717 or contact the Box Office online.

Goodnight Nobody

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., presents a stunning new play by Rachel Bonds, directed by Tyne Rafaeli, that opened January 18 and runs through February 9. The play’s five characters have fifteen relationships among them, relationships with the power to sneak up on you and knock you out of your seat.

The play takes place in a “lovingly restored” upstate New York farmhouse, surrounded by trees—a nice metaphor for the quest for comfort in a wilderness of emotion. Its first scene reveals the inauspicious love affair between a young painter, Nan (Saamer Usmani), and a successful older sculptor, Mara (Dana Delany) who owns the farmhouse. He’s made her breakfast, and the scent of bacon wafts over the audience.

You don’t know whether this secret relationship will or can survive, when the second scene begins at some later point. Mara’s son Reggie (Nate Miller) has brought his two closest friends to the farmhouse for a getaway weekend. They are K (Ariel Woodiwiss) and, again, Nan. Nan is having some artistic success; Reggie is a comedian just coming off of a brutal national tour; and K needs a break from the demands of her infant son and recently widowed mother. They have a pretty good time of it. Nan is a fantastic cook, there’s plenty of booze and beer and a freezing lake to swim in, though Nan is the only one to take the plunge (a recurring tendency).

Unexpectedly, Mara appears with the current man in her life, the age-appropriate Bo (Ken Marks). Everyone—Mara and Nan, especially—puts on a game face, but the undercurrents the newcomers set in motion are practically visible. When the group decamps outdoors to enjoy an evening bonfire, several relationships go up in smoke. To enable this scene, Kimie Nishikawa has created a spectacular set that opens like a birthday present.

Bonds writes realistic, witty, endearing dialog. The laughs—and there are plenty of them—are a pleasing surface, though pain and disappointment gradually float into view. Though you may feel you know these characters well, Bonds has the power to surprise you.

The combination of Bonds’s writing, Rafaeli’s inspired direction, and the excellent performances of the entire company make this multi-layered, complex drama a compelling experience. Its title comes from the children’s classic, Goodnight Moon, and as K riffs on the story’s tedium, wonders aloud about its sorrowful line, “Goodnight nobody,” the line that transports a simple story from the realm of the predictable into the unknown.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s arts district, as well as two innovative restaurants in the buildings of the old train station. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

*****The Kennedy Moment

By Peter Adamson – In this political thriller by former UNICEF official Peter Adamson, the reunion of five college friends launches a do-good project that none of them could have anticipated, that has every potential of imminently and disastrously going off the rails, and that has almost incomparably high stakes.

In the early 1960s, a group of Oxford University students were best friends. As Stephen Walsh, a stubbornly Marxist professor writes to the others, “We’ve lost touch, the months drifting into years and the years into decades.” He proposes a reunion.

Michael Lowell, the only American, leads a World Health Organization team on childhood immunization; Seema Mir works on a biography of the African American Hemings family; Toby Jenks is the hard-drinking creative director of an advertising agency; and Canadian Hélène Hevré is a physician, exhausted from the demands of tending patients within the minimalist health care system of Côte d’Ivoire.

The relationships among these friends, especially the two almost-couples (Michael and Seema; Toby and Hélène), are believable and sometimes painful because the characters are so engaging.

At the reunion, Toby, with his flair for the outrageous, responds to the health professionals’ angst over vaccine-preventable illnesses saying, “Seems to me, possums, the obvious thing to do here is to get hold of a little test tube of cached smallpox virus and threaten to blow bubbles with it in Times Square unless the world gets off its butt and immunizes every last kiddie.”

A few months later, the friends reunite in New York. No one has forgotten Toby’s little joke, and before long they have a plan to use smallpox virus to blackmail the US government into fulfilling its immunization commitments. But it must be carried out in complete secrecy.

Predictably, the government focuses not on meeting these mysterious demands, but on finding out who is behind this little venture and stopping it. To them, it’s bioterrorism, and a nail-biting chase is on. Meanwhile, Toby crafts a powerful statement for the US President: “Twenty years ago, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to the goal of putting a man on the moon within a decade. Today, the United States commits itself to another great goal: a goal for our times; a goal to be achieved here on earth; the goal of immunizing all of the world’s children against the major killer diseases of childhood.”

I loved this book and the daring team of characters that took on the crimes of neglect and half-measures. Hugely satisfying and out of the ordinary. Available here.

Photo: anjawbk for Pixabay.

Movie Jam-Up

popcorn

In Hollywood’s haste to release films under the wire for this year’s Oscars, a number of excellent movies appeared during the holiday season, and I haven’t even seen them all yet. But I would recommend these:

Ford v Ferrari – One of the most exciting films I’ve seen in a long time, and not a single spy in sight, other than the corporate kind (trailer). And the tension held, even though I knew the ending. Yes, some of the corporate doings of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and his management team were fictionalized, but not Ford’s 1966 accomplishments on the LeMans race course. Wisely, Ford entrusted creation of his racing vehicles to legendary engineer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who insisted on using his favorite driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Damon and Bale are perfection. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audiences 98%.

Little Women – So much has been said about how writer/director Greta Gerwig draws new insights from this much-produced tale. Her framing of the story of four sisters growing up in the mid-19th century works (trailer), and in sister Jo’s (Saoirse Ronan’s) negotiations with her publisher (Tracy Letts again), the blending of Jo with author Louisa May Alcott is clear. Amy (Florence Pugh) receives a more well-rounded treatment than usual. She has the best lines of the movie, suggested by Meryl Streep, when she matter-of-factly explains to Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that marriage for a woman is not a question of love, but finances. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 95%; audiences 92%.

Dark Waters – Tales of crusading lawyers and journalists (think Spotlight, The Post) are especially refreshing in these times, when idealism seems quaintly outmoded. The film is based on the true story of how a determined Cincinnati lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) takes on DuPont for covering up the damaging health effects of Teflon exposure (trailer). He persists, even though the head of his law firm (Tim Robbins), which serves many corporate clients, is reluctant; his wife (Anne Hathaway) thinks he’s unhinged; his kids grow up; and the powerful company works for two decades to shut him down. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 90%; audiences 95%.

Knives Out – It’s very entertaining to see writer/director Rian Johnson put this great cast—among them, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, and Ana de Armas—through its paces (trailer). Wealthy family patriarch Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who made a fortune writing mystery stories (this is fiction, remember) is found dead of an apparent suicide. But was it? Not only do his children stand to inherit, but they all have additional motives to kill him. Or do they? Courtly Southern detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) arrives to sort lies from truth. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 97%; audiences 92%.

*****The Murder of Harriet Monckton

poison, bottle Arek Socha for Pixabay

By Elizabeth Haynes – If you have people on your holiday gift list who are fans of historical mysteries, this might be just the book for them! Author Elizabeth Haynes stumbled across a trove of documents in the UK’s National Archives relating to an obscure mid-1840s murder in the (then) small town of Bromley, a few miles southeast of London. The coroner’s jury verdict was delayed several years because of the case’s numerous uncertainties and the plethora of suspects.

Haynes uses those uncertainties to create a fictional story that begins from the certain knowledge that on 6 November 1843, Harriet Monckton took or was administered poison, died, and her body stowed in the privy behind the Congregational Chapel. When the next day she’s noted as missing, a search ensues. Even before her body is found, multiple efforts are under way to mislead, mischaracterize, and otherwise frustrate any inquiries.

The story is imagined from the points of view of several real-life people, chief among them: Harriet’s friend, the schoolteacher Frances Williams; Reverend George Verrall, her confidant; Thomas Churcher, a shoemaker in love with her; and Richard Field, Harriet’s former mentor and lover, now married and living in London. Verrall and Churcher are the more obvious suspects, though if a wider net were cast, Williams and Field or even Field’s wife and Churcher’s ex-fiancée might be suspected.

Each of these characters provides an account of their association with Harriet—both in response to the coroner’s questioning and in their private thoughts. It’s a Rashomon-like treatment, with each not only seeing the sketchy facts in different ways, but recounting them to their best advantage. Haynes gives each a distinct voice and point of view, not all admirable. Her slightly old-fashioned writing style helps transport you to the era. All of their views, however revelatory, are one step removed from Harriet herself, but you finally do hear from her directly when Frances reads her diary.

Haynes’s Bromley is completely convincing, as are the reactions of the residents as one secret after another is revealed and as some secrets manage to remain hidden. As the author says, “The impact on my life has been profound, to the extent that I feel as if I have inhabited Bromley in 1843 myself.” I felt it too. Even though the book’s events took place a long time ago, the tension was fresh.

Harriet is a character who isn’t so much described as assembled. Like the build-up of daubs of paint that produce a portrait, Haynes’s text-clues allow you, eventually, to see the dead woman, with all her flaws and vibrancy, as she was in life.

Photo: Arek Socha for Pixabay

Last Books Read in 2019

magician, assistant

***Cairo Modern

Written by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, translated from the Egyptian by William M. Hutchins. This story of how an unscrupulous college graduate gets his comeuppance captures a bygone time in the city and culture. Originally published in 1945, it’s more interesting than entertaining.

*****The Magician’s Assistant

I hadn’t heard of this 1997 book by Ann Patchett, but thankfully another tourist left it behind. It was captivating, start to finish and not the first book I’ve read lately about people involved in creating illusions. Sabine’s magician-husband, a gay man named Parsifal, has died, and soon she learns he’d made up his backstory. Grief-stricken, she tries to connect with his real history. Amazon link.

*****Inland

Téa Obreht’s new book is just great, and she vividly captures the essence and rhythms of America’s Old West. In a lawless, drought-stricken Arizona, a family struggles with the politics of water. Meanwhile, several states east, some bright individual in the US Army decides to import camels to use as pack animals—an experiment with unexpected consequences. Amazon link.

****The Oxford Murders

Billed as “a scholarly whodunit,” this novel by Guillermo Martínez, set in England, provides numerous puzzles for its mathematician protagonists to decipher in order to stop a serial killer. A lot of fun. Amazon link.

***Sharp Objects

Gillian Flynn’s 2006 debut novel is a page-turner, though you may guess early on who’s killing children in the tiny Missouri home town of the protagonist, Chicago reporter Camille Preaker. Camille has spent time in psychiatric care because she carves words into her body, and I found her experience with that even more engrossing than the mystery!

Photo: Enrique Meseguer for Pixabay